- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

The European Union yesterday took the drastic step of closing all livestock markets throughout the 15-nation bloc in an effort to block the spread of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that began in Britain two weeks ago.

The measure, the most Draconian since the disease appeared, imposes a two-week ban on all trading markets of sheep, pigs and cattle where the highly contagious condition might spread. But it permits livestock transports between farms and to slaughterhouses.

The decision came at a meeting of a veterinary experts at the European Commission in Brussels, where representatives of the union's member states huddled to determine how to ensure that the disease, which has not appeared on the continent, be contained in Britain and eradicated.

The panel also extended until March 27 a ban on all exports of meat, livestock and milk products from Britain and said the tires of vehicles arriving from Britain in other EU nations must be disinfected.

Because foot-and-mouth disease, which is not dangerous to humans, has a two-week incubation period, EU officials hope yesterday's ban, with Britain's own internal measures, will allow them to isolate and destroy infected animals.

"The [British] veterinarians said they expect a peak of this outbreak today, tomorrow or sometime this week," commission spokesman Thorsten Muench said yesterday. "All the information they gave was rather reassuring."

The full European Commission likely will approve the decision later this week, a spokesman said.

The sickness, caused by a virus, affects cloven-hoofed animals, such as cows, pigs and sheep, and produces telltale lesions around their mouths. It rapidly infects entire herds.

Britain's chief veterinary official, Jim Scudamore, took a cautious line, saying before the decision that Britain's Feb. 23 ban on movement of all livestock, four days after the outbreak, had curtailed the contagion.

"The first evidence is that because we stopped all movements, we stopped the spread of the disease," he said in Brussels. "At present it looks like it's under control, although there are cases still appearing and they will continue to appear."

Yesterday, two additional farms in Britain were found to have animals with foot-and-mouth disease, bringing the total to 80 since the first cases were identified Feb. 19.

More than 80,000 animals in Britain have been destroyed or are earmarked for destruction after having come in contact with diseased animals.

But fears have begun to subside that the British outbreak on a farm in southwest English has spread to the continent. Suspected cases in France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark turned out to be false alarms over the weekend.

Nevertheless, Europeans have reacted anxiously to the outbreak.

Norway barred British troops from taking part in NATO exercises for fear they could carry the disease on their boots. Anxious Norwegian farmers blocked 300 French soldiers for three hours late Monday until veterinary officials assured them there was no contamination risk.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation, meeting in Monte Carlo, decided Tuesday to move this month's World Cross Country Championships from Ireland to Belgium because of Irish fears competitors or spectators could bring in the disease.

Also, the European Central Bank said it would switch a planned March 15 meeting in Dublin to its home base in Frankfurt, Germany.

Several EU nations were pushing for tougher action. Italy had demanded a complete ban on all livestock movement across borders within the European Union, but the panel of veterinary experts did not go that far.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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